In the richest of the French colonies, St. Domingue, whites had been fathering the children of slave women, and by the time of the French Revolution some sons of mixed race had become owners of the colony's sugar plantations, and others of mixed race were at least free men. The people of mixed race on St. Domingue numbered around 30,000, while the colony's slaves numbered around 500,000, about four-fifths of them field hands. In the mountains were small villages of descendants of slave runaways who lived from subsistence farming, maintained their African culture, occasionally raided a plantation, and banded together to resist planter attempts to re-enslave them. The whites in the colony numbered around 20,000. In addition to the plantation owners and their families, these included shopkeepers, merchants, doctors, craftsmen, wives, teachers, sailors and soldiers.
Following France's proclamation of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789, a delegation of men of mixed race, called gens de couleur, arrived in Paris to ask whether this included them, and they won assurance that it did. Opposing recognition of equality of the gens de couleur were the lower class whites (petits blancs) lower at any rate than the highly born more wealthy whites (grands blancs). The lower class whites wanted to hold onto the ranking that race had offered them, but also they feared that if those of mixed race were considered equal soon the blacks would also want to be equal and free.
A leader of the gens de couleur, Vincent Oge, brought back from Paris the message that all taxpayers were to be allowed to vote in elections for the colonial legislature. He petitioned the colony's governor for recognition of this, but failed. White vigilantes tried to disarm a small army of his supporters and a small war erupted. By early 1791 the whites in St. Domingue crushed the small army of gens de couleur. Twenty-two of an army of about 300, including Oge and a French priest who had joined his group, were hanged. And slaves saw Oge die proclaiming liberty.
Some slaves decided to fight for their freedom. In August 1791, plantations on the plain around Cape François in the north of the colony burned, and around a thousand whites were slaughtered. Paris sent soldiers to the colony to restore order, and in early 1792 the French government decreed that free gens de couleur were to have full citizenship. The French authorities wanted unity between the whites and the gens de couleur for the sake of containing rebellion by the blacks. In Paris there was also concern about the illegal trade that plantation owners were conducting with US merchants and fear that the plantation owners would try to break with France and tie themselves commercially with the United States.
After war broke out in early 1793 between France and other European powers, people on St. Domingue anticipated the arrival of France's enemy, the British. In August 1793 a former slave and leader of a coalition of gens de couleur and slaves, Toussaint L'Ouverture, decreed all slaves emancipated, and many slaves joined his rebel army. It was the first society-wide emancipation of slavery in history. The British landed on September 19 in the south of the colony. The white plantation owners welcomed them, expecting the British to reinstate slavery, make St. Domingue a British colony and strip the gens de couleur of their citizenship.
By early June 1794, the British in St. Domingue had moved northward, taking Port-au-Prince and other towns. Toussaint L'Ouverture fought a guerrilla war while allied with the French against the British.
By 1801, British forces had withdrawn from St. Domingue. Toussaint L'Ouverture led the dominant force that remained. The French Revolution had moderated. On July 26 1801, Toussaint L'Ouverture published a constitution that recognized Roman Catholicism as the official religion. The constitution proclaimed loyalty and subservience to France. According to the constitution, St. Domingue's plantations were to be worked voluntarily by free people, Toussaint L'Ouverture was to be governor-general for life and all men from 14 to 55 years of age were to be in the state militia.
Toussaint L'Ouverture had not received approval of his constitution from France's new head of state, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. On February 2, 1802, a French army of 12,000 sent by Napoleon arrived at Cape François, and Toussaint L'Ouverture's military retreated to the interior to fight another guerilla war. On June 7, Toussaint received a message from a French General, Brunet, to meet for negotiations. Brunet assured Toussaint that he would be perfectly safe with the French, whom he said were gentlemen. When Toussaint showed up for the meeting, the French took and shipped him to France to a cold and damp prison near the Swiss border, where Toussaint withered and died on April 7, 1803.
While fighting in St. Domingue, the French were decimated by yellow fever. The former slaves were now led by a former lieutenant of Toussaint: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a man without Toussaint's moderation concerning bloodshed. Dessalines commanded the heights above Port-Au-Prince and gave French troops eight days to evacuate the city on condition that they leave the city's fortifications intact. Some civilian whites fled with the French, taking with them what wealth they could carry. To the north, at the Battle of Vertières, near Cape François, battalions of blacks defeated a French force, and the rest of Napoleon's forces on St. Domingue withdrew. Perhaps as many as 27,000 of the civilians who fled with them went to eastern Cuba, where they were to take up coffee and sugar planting.
On January 1, 1804, Dessalines proclaimed independence and renamed the land Haiti. He and close associates swore to die rather than submit again to French control, and they pledged support for each other. Dessalines took the title of Governor-General for Life. He removed the white from the red, white and blue of the French flag, leaving red and blue for Haiti's flag. He began purging Haiti of white people as vengeance against France and to purify Haiti of French taint – with the exception of a few he saw as having been kind to blacks: medical doctors, a few useful merchants and an American. The butchering of whites lasted from January to mid-March. Dessalines proclaimed an end to his vengeance, knowing some of the French had survived. And after they emerged from hiding he had them killed.
Later, after Dessalines learned that Napoleon had been crowned emperor (on December 2, 1804), Dessalines arranged for his own coronation as Emperor Jacques the First. Dessalines tried to extend his control to the eastern side of the island, against Spaniards and French in what today is the Dominican Republic. When his troops reached the city of Santo Domingo, French ships arrived, and his Haitians retreated, killing and raping their way back to their side of the island.
In May 1805, shortly after returning to Haiti, Dessalines put his signature on Haiti's first constitution (although he and his close associates could not read). According to the constitution, all power rested with him, the emperor, none with any independent judiciary or body of legislators. The nation's colors were changed from red and blue to red and black. The gens de couleur were henceforth not recognized: all were to be known as noirs (blacks). Dessalines considered the gens de couleur as bastard offspring – while he surrounded himself with mistresses of various shades of skin.
By 1806, Dessalines' generals were looking upon him as a ridiculous figure, and Dessalines regarded his generals with suspicion. Dessalines made his home and headquarters in Haiti's north. In the south, where the gens de couleur were concentrated, people hated and feared him. Dessalines announced his plans to march with troops into the south, and the south exploded in rebellion. Dessalines' generals prepared a trap for him along the way. His horse was shot from under him. Pinned to the ground, his head was blown off and his body hacked to pieces with machetes.
General Henri Christophe called an election for an assembly that would write a new constitution. Christophe was chosen leader in the north. Another general, Alexander Pétion, a gen de couleur, became the leader in the south. The two halves split into hostile camps, and military skirmishes followed.
Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.